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It was Hawaii. I was as far from the concept of stress as I was from Minnesota. My two week trip with my family had been preplanned, with ample time for idle hobbies or relaxation. We were thus justified to believe that an hour before sunset was perfect for descending and returning from the Haleakala Crater. To say the least, we were misguided.
The first complication occurred on the famous Haleakala Highway. I was content to watch for the rare Silversword plants until we rounded a gut-wrenching turn and had our first glimpse of the immensity of this volcano. This moment of majesty was soon overshadowed by the sight of dozens of blind turns, roads that seemed to bend you over backwards and then sprint innocently in the opposite direction, cyclists racing through said dangerous turns, and, of course, cattle occasionally meandering onto the road then loathe to leave. I recall passing within inches of one cow before whipping around another turn. My family looked shaken and my stomach was a shade beyond unsettled, but I persevered. The highway was one of the most dangerous I had encountered, but it was a distinctive contrast to the slow pace of life earlier in our vacation. Plus, the best part of this trip was yet to come, and the hardships up the mountain would only sweeten the walk we were about to undertake.
The air at the summit was clear and invigorating, a welcome respite after the drive. Dotting the slope were large white domes, research telescopes that took advantage of the clarity of the air like so many mushrooms. While my family photographed and discussed the artistic elements of such a scene, I peered over the edge to see what sort of hike we were undertaking. There was half an hour of daylight left, and I could not even see the bottom of the dark maw. Nevertheless, I moved forward with my slightly discouraged family trailing behind. The sun was now definitely setting. My parents sauntered behind in the increasing darkness, but my siblings and I realized the urgent nature of our quest and began to jog down the crater wall. Jogging downhill filled us with joy and an unnatural sense of purpose. With gravity as our aid, we near sprinted down the steep incline…and sprinted…and sprinted. Our parents would wait for many hours yet in one of the darkest night locations in the world.
I reached the bottom unable to suck enough air into my lungs. I felt as if my chest was about to explode, and with each jarring footfall, my vision clouded. The cinder cone that formed the bottom of the crater seemed to float above me, forever unattainable. I did not stop, though, until I stumbled and rolled though choking grit to slam into the steep, short hill that was the cinder cone. I lay dazed, distantly happy for reaching this goal yet now unaware of why I had been pursuing this goal in the first place. I was alive, and that’s what was most important. My moment of victory faded from my consciousness as I gazed up at the living tapestry of light, the Milky Way in its impressive glory. Then I remembered. I dragged myself to my feet, searching for my siblings. They were gone, and I could not remember when I had last seen them. Darkness had set in, and the crater park had closed. I was the only human in the park boundaries, evidenced by the miles of sand and rock that were my only companions. Here I was, alone at the bottom of the world, with hours of climbing to rejoin civilization if I could even find the trail and if I hadn’t been completely exhausted. My knees started to buckle, but I resolutely took a step forward. I would get home if I had the will to continue.
As I began my ascension, my fears suddenly made their appearance. My parents would be near the breaking point by now, probably in a frenzy to get park rangers to find me. I was alone in over fourteen square miles of dormant cinder cones and desert, and I was ready to collapse. As I slipped of the edge of the supposed trail and crumpled into a nervous wreck, I brushed against something that flashed silver in the edge of my vision. Wide awake, I whirled to face this mysterious foe…a plant. I rested, admiring this iridescent giant-zinnia-like plant. It radiated a calm glow that forced me to acknowledge my situation and think. Stress was the very nature of this plant’s existence, even causing it to adapt and thrive where nothing else could. Yet stress was not only the nature of the plant’s environment, but necessary for this plant to thrive. Surely I could use this moment to achieve new heights as well.
I caught up with my siblings, who had turned back an hour ago and never noticed I had not done the same. Their only focus was the summit. My sister was near tears and cut from multiple tumbles while my brother listed from side to side. This trip was going to be difficult, but only physically. I had seen from one moment of distraction that you are the source of all your stress. Your response to adversity is what can make or break you. Every step was painful, but I didn’t mind now. My siblings were focused on the summit, but I was focused on the journey. This was a unique experience! Not only were the photographs utterly one-of-a-kind (most people can’t photograph Haleakala at sunset as the crater is closed to the public), but the sensation as well. We were in a dormant volcano dotted with glowing plants, literally isolated from the rest of the globe. The hardship of the trek only enhanced the experience: I was not stressed, only given a chance to improve my surroundings. The more I walked, the more the end result was worth.
Drearily noting my strange confidence and enjoyment, my siblings began to put aside their own fears.
“Look at that glowing spot up above. It’s nearly as bright as a full moon!” I mentioned to them.
“Yes, that’s the center of the Milky Way,” muttered my brother, perking up as his thoughts were drawn away from his feet, “I bet this is one of the only places left where you can see such a thing!”
“And to think we would have missed it if we hadn’t gone on this wretched mountain!” my sister exclaimed, caught between misery and sarcasm before she, too, forgot her pains and just gazed skyward.
We reached the summit, to the relief of everyone involved, and were allowed to leave the park. As I explained what happened to our parents, they were incredulous that we had made the trek. I told them of how I realized I was in control of my stress, and that I could do something about it by finding the source of my stress and then focusing on the importance of that source rather than the stress I was experiencing. My parents hardly paid attention, nervously instructing us on what we should have done. I then calmly refocused their words and directed their attention to our accomplishments rather than our failures. We all learned. Soon, we had gratefully returned home, glad to be done with our physical exertions but considerate of what we had experienced. Our hardships were more than a means to an end, but an end themselves – there was no stress where there was focus. My family gathered and admired the fruit of our labor, our photographs that would serve as a reminder of this skill to eliminate stress that would carry us through new adventures and beyond.